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A look at 'why?'

A blunt, harsh criticism, or a preventer of war?

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Our Editorial Director Alex looks at 'why?' in celebration of English Language Day

It’s not the most beautiful word. There’s no elegant cadence to it, no pleasing onomatopoeia, no smile in the mind cleverness.

It’s just a simple blunt question. But it can do so much more than any other word I can think of.

It shines a light on motivation, helping us understand what’s driving someone to say, believe or do something. Asked at the right time it can cut through confusion, even head off discord. Think of all the arguments, fights, wars that have raged simply because of a misunderstanding.

Mercutio: “You shalt feel the point of my rapier, Tybalt!”

Tybalt: “Nay, Mercutio, it is you who will feed worms on the morrow.”

A character Shakespeare didn’t introduce: “Er….excuse me but why…are you two fighting?”

Tybalt & Mercutio: “Because Capulets and Montagues are sworn enemies!”

A character Shakespeare didn’t introduce: “Oh. I see…..Why?”

Silence.

Mercutio: “I’m not sure. Are you?”

Tybalt: “No. Not really.”

Silence

Tybalt: “Nice codpiece by the way.”

Mercutio: “Thanks. Fancy a quick mead or two?”

Apologies to the bard for destroying his beautiful dialogue and of course it would have brought a fairly swift and dull end to the tale of star-crossed lovers, but hopefully you see my point that in the real world asking ‘why?’ can have unexpectedly positive outcomes.

The question 'why?' also forces us to rethink. Why exactly are we doing something? It can jolt us out of habitual action, thinking through plans or beliefs to find new, better paths to take.

Downtrodden serf 1: If I have to plough this sodding field one more time I swear I’m going to blaspheme.

Downtrodden serf 2: Tell me about it.

Downtrodden serf 1: It’s all right for that massive ox over there munching grass and watching us toil in this heat.

Downtrodden: Oxen. They’re the worst.

Interfering passer-by: Why are you doing this?

Downtrodden serf 1: The noble told us to.

Interfering passer-by: Why do you do what he says?

Downtrodden serf 2: He’ll kill us if we don’t.

Interfering passer-by: Sound reason. But why are you doing it yourselves?

Downtrodden serf 1: That’s how it’s always been done. My father did it, and his father before him.”

Interfering passer-by: Surely there’s a better way. Why don’t you see if there’s anything around here that would be better at pulling a plough than you are?

Silence.

Downtrodden serf 1: You mean Ulric? He’s the best at it in the whole village. But it’s his day off today.”

They’ll get there eventually, and hopefully, you see what I mean. Many of humankind’s great leaps forward would never have happened if someone hadn’t thought to ask 'why?'.

It’s not always an easy question to ask, especially when used in its bluntest, one-word form. I often worry the person I’m asking will infer criticism or disagreement, rather than the intended uncertainty or interest. In my experience, though it’s rare that people do react in that way. Most people like to be asked. So few people do ask, and most people welcome the opportunity to explain their reasoning or think a topic through in more depth.

Of course, it has to be used sparingly. No one wants to be that annoying person asking why, why, why. Save it for when it can really make a difference, and you might be surprised by how much of a difference the little word ‘why?’ can make.

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